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Time and Space, Limited

Making the most of the resources at hand when preparing the Thanksgiving feast By B.A. Nilsson

When you’re in charge of get ting dinner to the table, you know that timing is everything. You want all the elements—the roast, the vegetables, the potatoes, the breadstuffs—to arrive simultaneously, wisps of steam still rising from what just emerged from skillet and oven.

In my house, I’ve been given permanent dinner duty, and pride myself on coordinating those courses each evening. And it’s just as they’re hitting the dining-room table that my wife decides it’s time to browse for a beverage.

But at Thanksgiving the dynamic is different. At least a dozen hungry guests are waiting, and the atmosphere crackles with anticipation. And it’s my time to show off the most inventive preparations I can assemble, each year following a different culinary theme as I try to showcase familiar ingredients in unusual ways.

Which is all well and good in an abstract, looks-great-on-the-menu sense. What has happened far too often in real life is that this idealized menu collides with the realities of kitchen limitations, and I find myself lacking free burners or oven space.

It’s not a problem unique to the home kitchen. I’ve dined at fancy restaurants where the specials of the night backfired because they were all, say, sautée dishes and that’s all the customers wanted—but I can’t say I’ve seen it often. And the home kitchen is generally much more limited than what the professionals have to work with.

So my holiday menu is now designed very much with practicality in mind. And it’s a two-part consideration. First is the question of prep and cooking space; second, the challenge of getting finished dishes to the table together.

I’ve already been working this week on my menu breakdown. Shopping lists are extrapolated from the recipes, and I make a suspense calendar of what to cook when, typically starting two or three days ahead.

That’s when the first round of dishes get finished, those items that can be refrigerated and need only oven space on Thursday. It’s always helpful to have a recipe or two in the lineup like that, and something like a squash casserole—a perennial favorite—is a natural. It’s also a good time to peel potatoes, if that’s necessary, and then hold the naked spuds in a container of water to prevent discoloration. (As refrigerator space becomes a premium, I make use of a chilly shed off the back of the house.)

This year’s Italian-themed menu calls for a couple of different tomato-based sauces, which can use a day or two to allow the flavors to further meld; similarly, any soup you plan to serve will benefit from that extra time in the pot.

The night before is a big prep time for me. That’s when I’ll make the fresh ravioli (filled with ricotta and spinach, served with truffle oil) and churn the gelato for one of the desserts.

And then Thursday dawns. In one respect, it’s always the same: coffee until noon, diet soda until about four, and then wine for the rest of the night. But along with the libations is a crescendo of activity, beginning with the morning’s grunt work to settle the mise en place—slicing vegetables, assembling roasts and prepping those potatoes (try slicing them into a casserole dish atop a generous handful of sliced onions, seasoning with salt and pepper and grated romano cheese, filling the dish with chicken stock and baking the foil-topped assembly in a hot oven until the potato tips have browned).

I usually promise dinner at about four o’clock; some years I’m actually getting the food out by six. But I like to be surrounded by the guests during that final couple of crazed hours—usually there’s someone available to slice those mushrooms I forgot to prep earlier, or to baste the bird.

That turkey tends to take over the oven, so we’ve learned to press other cooking venues into service. A deep-fryer, for instance, reduces the cooking time to an hour or so, and turkey thus prepared is incredibly popular. And it’s done outside, freeing space in both oven and kitchen.

Although my smoker seems to run all summer, cranking out ribs and brisket and the like, it’s also an excellent turkey cooker, turning the skin a crackling red while it deepens the meat’s flavor. But give yourself a good six to eight hours for the bird. (We also use it for other meats, like last year’s popular bison round.)

And don’t forget the outdoor grill. Before I got the smoker, I split the turkey cooking between oven and indirect charcoal heat, with satisfying results. This year I’ll use it for grilling vegetables.

One goal is to finish the courses so that nothing needs to visit the microwave oven for a final shot of heat. That goal is rarely achieved, but I try to err on the side of pulling food off the stove too early—it’s always an embarrassment to discover a pot of limp, yellowing broccoli neglected at the back of the stove.

Inevitably, however, there’s an array of a la minute items that jostle for heat as the dinner hour nears. Must it be sautéed? I ask myself as I put together the menu, and therefore end up with way too many items in the oven. So I’ve learned to choose my bakeware accordingly, finding sizes that fit together to take maximum advantage of the limited space.

The turkey is out and resting; fresh cranberry sauce (made the day before, livened with Grand Marnier) is pulled from the fridge. Beside the pot of mashed potatoes, just boiled and rich with butter and cream, is a large skillet with cloves of garlic rolling in olive oil, sizzling as the par-boiled string beans hit.

Presentation dishes are arrayed on a counter, and I summon a line of guests who, as I toss a chiffonade of parsley atop the finished product, convey the platters to the candlelit table. And the Thanksgiving meal begins.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Professor Moriarty’s (430 Broadway) is holding a wild game dinner tonight (Thursday), with a menu consisting of such unusual items as appetizer preparations of ostrich and alligator, and an entrée selection that includes moulard duck, sliced buffalo sirloin and wild salmon, as well as a mixed grill of wild boar, pheasant and venison, all prepared by executive chef Jim Kelly. For more info and reservations, phone the restaurant at 587-5981. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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